Day 3 of the Obama Administration and it looks like Obama’s keeping his word.
Yesterday saw the signing of an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, as well as all overseas CIA detention centres for terror suspects, and ban the use of torture in interrogations. Many countries, countless human rights organisations and the UN itself have hailed this move.
But what made me equally excited was what he did on Day 1. Obama issued two memos reflecting his desire to see a greater commitment to freedom of information and a more transparent government.
In the memo on freedom of information (2009foia.mem.rel.pdf), he ordered federal agencies to adopt “a presumption in favour of disclosure” in administering the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA): “In the face of doubt, openness prevails.”
This is a sharp contrast to the memo issued by then US Attorney General John Ashcroft soon after 9/11, which called on government bodies to only disclose information after exhausting all means to withhold it. Although the new memo does not explicitly overturn the policy, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EEF) still considers it a ‘big step in the right direction’ as it directs the incoming attorney general to reaffirm the commitment to accountability and transparency when s/he issues new FOIA guidelines to government agencies.
According to this memo, “(a) democracy requires accountability, and accountability requires transparency. As Justice Louis Brandeis wrote, “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.”
It goes on to say: “The Freedom of Information Act should be administered with a clear presumption: In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears. Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public. “
And the call to action: “The presumption of disclosure also means that agencies should take affirmative steps to make information public. They should not wait for specific requests from the public. All agencies should use modern technology to inform citizens about what is known and done by their Government. Disclosure should be timely.”
In the memo on the subject of transparency and open government (2009_transparency_memo.pdf), Obama reiterates his goal to create ‘an unprecedented level of openness in Government.’ Whilst reading it, I felt like I was reading an ode to Web 2.0: Obama focused on the values and principles that have woven the participatory Web into the heart of social interaction — transparency, participation and collaboration.
He urges all government bodies to harness the benefits of new media so that their operations and decisions can be readily available for the public online. Going a step further, he encourages them to get feedback from the public and make space for their participation, whether it is policy-making or getting people’s input on how to improve public participation in governance. He explicitly directs agencies to “use innovative tools, methods, and systems to cooperate among themselves, across all levels of Government, and with nonprofit or individuals in the private sector.”
Only time can tell if these initiatives will truly result in significant changes in how federal government works, and whether it will contribute to more meaningful participation of citizens in government decision-making. Even so, it is heartening to see Obama trying to fulfill the promises made during his campaign to employ blogs, wikis and other social networking tools to modernize public communication and information-sharing. You won’t catch some heads of states out there to even allude to openness, transparency and collaboration. I’m quite excited to see how notions of the so-called e-democracy will hold up in everyday life and in the practice of good governance.